Sculptural Revolution: The changing face of the public statue

Scarcely a week seems to pass without a controversial monument being unveiled. Jerome Taylor on some that caused a stir

Saturday 09 April 2011 00:00
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New York has the Statue of Liberty, Rio de Janeiro is overlooked by the mighty Christ the Redeemer and London... well, London has Michael Jackson.

When Harrods' boss Mohamed al Fayed unveiled a three-dimensional tribute to the King of Pop this week, the seven-foot plaster-and-resin cast was greeted with near-unanimous ridicule. Was the millionaire department store owner trying to out wacko Jacko? pundits asked.

We tend to have a soft spot for traditional statues, the grotesques that adorn our churches or ubiquitous generals atop their bronze horses. But anything that breaks the mould has always divided opinion.

"It is a generally received opinion that most of the statues of London are contemptible and vile," wrote a New York Times journalist in an unflattering critique of Britain's public artwork in 1882. So the question is, has our taste got any better?

Examine the photos on these pages and judge for yourself. For every Angel of the North there is a Desperate Dan of Dundee, or a Ted Bates of Southampton. The latter is a classic example of how not to forge a statue. When Southampton unveiled its attempt to capture the likeness of its football hero in 2007, fans decried the statue's uncanny likeness to comedian Jimmy Krankie. The Bates' statue, they said, looked nothing like Bates.

The original was torn down and replaced – at a cost of £120,000 – with a new statue the next year. "It was an embarrassing episode, mistakes happened, it wasn't very good and something had to be done," the club's chairman admitted at the time.

Fulham fans unhappy with the Michael Jackson statue will likely get short shrift from the club's owner. "If some stupid fans don't understand and appreciate such a gift, they can go to hell," Al Fayed said. "I don't want them as fans. If they don't believe in the things I believe in, they can go to Chelsea."

But while Fulham's Jacko has been universally panned, other statues leave the public and critics divided. When Paul Day's statue of two lovers embracing was unveiled as the artistic centre piece of the resurrection of St Pancras station, you could barely find two art critics with the same opinion. The work was singled out by Angel of the North creator Anthony Gormley who, in an interview with The Independent two years ago, lamented the state of British statues.

"On the whole we have not reinvented the statue very convincingly for the 21st century," he said. "There is an awful lot of crap out there."

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